Upgrade Your Motherboard the Easy Way

Even accomplished geeks shy away from motherboard upgrades on their main PCs. Years ago, I would often upgrade gaming and test systems in my own basement lab, but keep chugging along with a production machine using a two-year-old motherboard and CPU.

Then I learned how to swap in a new motherboard without having to deal with a clean install. It isn't that difficult, provided you do a little up-front prep. The hard part is not the hardware installation--modern motherboards are easier to set up and install than in years past--it's bringing up an existing Windows installation and all your applications.

In this article I'm going to focus on a single-generation upgrade. Examples might include moving from an Intel Core 2-generation board to a Core i5/i7 board, or from an AMD Athlon 64 X2 AM2 board to a Phenom X4-capable board. Even in this case, you may be looking at additional hardware--particularly memory, if you're moving from DDR2 RAM to DDR3.

Specifically, I won't look at trying to move from very old hardware (say, a motherboard with AGP) to brand-new hardware. If you're planning on moving from ancient gear to current gear, a clean install really is the best way to go.

Here I'll walk you through the process of upgrading the motherboard in an existing PC, including taking care of all the software issues. The goal is to keep and maintain your existing Windows installation even after a motherboard upgrade. I'll focus on the process with Windows 7, but I'll also offer tips and tricks for Windows XP and Windows Vista.

Performing a motherboard upgrade is fairly simple, and consists of three parts: pre-upgrade preparation, the physical swap, and post-upgrade polishing.

Prepping for the Swap

Step 1: Back Up!

One key point to remember: You are putting your data at risk. Even if you're not into regular backups, now is the time to back up your system. I suggest backing up your valuable data onto an external drive first. Then, if possible, make an image backup of your entire hard drive, using a tool such as Acronis True Image ($50) or DriveImage XML (free). You don't have to clone to another hard drive; just put an image file on another drive, even on the external drive that contains the data backup.

Step 2: Collect Software Registration Keys

Take a close look at all the software you're running. Most modern applications require entering a registration key. You may have to reenter those keys, so make sure that you have them on hand, preferably on hard copy. If you have a lot of programs, grab Magical Jelly Bean Keyfinder--it will pull all of your registration keys so that you can easily record them.

Step 3: Deactivate or Uninstall Activated Applications

If an application requires activation, it may see a new motherboard as an attempt to copy the software illegally, and it may refuse to run as a result. For example, most Adobe professional apps (Photoshop, After Effects, Premiere Pro, and the suites, CS3 or later) require activation. However, they also have a handy "Deactivate" button in the help menu. If you're running an Adobe suite, you need to deactivate only one app to take care of the whole affair; but if you've installed individual programs, you'll have to deactivate those as well.

Magical Jelly Bean Keyfinder

Similarly, some games will require deactivation or uninstallation if they've been activated. Whatever the application, if it has gone through an activation process, you need to be prepared to reactivate it when you're installing a new motherboard. This rule of thumb may include Windows itself--I'll talk about how to take care of that in the post-upgrade section.

It's possible to skip the uninstall step for some apps, but doing so may mean that you'll find yourself calling the company for a new activation. I've done this for both Adobe and Microsoft apps without any issues, but it can be time consuming.

Step 4: Update Your Drivers

This step is particularly useful if you're moving from an older Intel chipset to a newer one (or from an older AMD chipset to a more recent generation). The latest Intel chipset drivers, which you can download from Intel's Website, are generally supersets, so the driver for your motherboard will also install drivers and .INF files for newer chipsets. Note that these files aren't actually active in your system, but are enumerated and installed when you bring up Windows for the first time on the new board.

It's also a good time to update your graphics board's drivers and, if you have a discrete sound card, your audio drivers. If you're using the motherboard's integrated audio, you'll obviously be installing those drivers after the upgrade.

Step 5: Check Your Storage Settings

First, check your disk-interface settings. Migrating between chipsets from different companies can be problematic. For example, if you're moving from an nVidia chipset to an Intel one, you'll want to make sure that your PC isn't running proprietary nVidia drivers for IDE. Otherwise, you might experience a blue-screen error on first boot--namely, the dreaded 'STOP 0x0000007' error, indicating that the disk interface is unrecognized.

For this article, I'll be upgrading a relatively standard desktop system with a single boot drive. Similar considerations hold true for RAID setups, however. If you're running RAID 1, you might want to revert to a single-volume setup until you get the system up and running. If you're running RAID 0, it's more complicated if the chipset manufacturers differ; you may have to reimage the volume to a single drive until after the installation. Note that moving from one Intel RAID generation to the next usually works without a hitch.

This is one reason backups are critical: You are changing your primary storage driver.

Note that I'm talking about boot drives here. If you have a RAID 1 or RAID 0 secondary drive, you'll probably be okay--but back up before upgrading anyway. There's always the chance that the new system won't recognize your old RAID volume if you're using the motherboard chipset to handle RAID.

If your machine is booting off an add-in disk-controller board (for instance, a PCI Express SAS or SCSI controller), you might not have a problem with the first boot, but there's no guarantee. You may have to perform a Windows repair (possible with Windows XP or Windows 7, but something you can't really do with Vista).

If you are migrating between similar chipsets (old Intel to new Intel, for example) and are running Intel RAID or AHCI (Advanced Host Controller Interface) mode, update the Intel RAID drivers to the latest version.

Check your BIOS setting to be certain, and make sure your new motherboard's settings are the same before fully booting for the first time. For example, if you're running AHCI in the current arrangement, set your new motherboard to AHCI in the BIOS prior to your first system start.

There are other possibilities as well--and if you have an unusually complex setup, a clean install may be the only way to go.

The Upgrade

For this article, I picked a pretty straightforward project. The system to be upgraded had an Intel Core 2 Duo E8400 CPU running on an Intel DX48BT2 motherboard, which uses an Intel X48 chipset. Though it was already a fairly fast system, it served my purposes, as it consisted of a last-generation CPU running on top of an older chipset.

I replaced the DX48BT2 with an Intel DX58SO motherboard, plus a Core i7 930 processor (2.8GHz) and 6GB of DDR3 memory from OCZ.

The original system had a few games, Microsoft Office, and Windows 7 Professional 64-bit edition. Office, of course, required activation, as did Windows itself.

To swap in the new gear, find a good work space that's flat, dry, and free of static electricity. If you live in a cold, dry area, running a humidifier in the background may be worthwhile. If possible, ground yourself with an antistatic strap; if you don't have one, be sure to touch bare metal to ensure that you've discharged static electricity before proceeding.

First, remove the old motherboard. You need to be careful when removing the CPU cooler and, in particular, the tiny connectors that run to the status LEDs, as well as the power and reset buttons. In fact, make sure to disconnect all wiring and cables before you start pulling out mounting screws. You'll probably want to remove the old memory and CPU, as well, storing them in appropriate, static-free containers. (Note: Tupperware and similar containers are not a good idea.)

You'll need a number 2 Phillips screwdriver, and possibly some fine needlenose pliers. Once you've disconnected all the wiring, take out the mounting screws and set them aside, and then wiggle the motherboard out carefully. Store the board in an antistatic envelope. Be sure to remove the ATX I/O plate, too.

Motherboard Installation

Before you drop in the new motherboard, check the standoffs that accept the mounting screws. Make sure they're installed--some may have come out when you removed the original board. Also confirm that they're properly aligned vertically.

Unpack the new motherboard, making sure to remove the CPU socket protector before proceeding with CPU installation.

Don't forget to install the ATX I/O back plate, or you'll find yourself removing the motherboard to install it.

Now it's time to prep the new motherboard. Just to make life interesting, on my system I decided to use a high-end CPU cooler, the Thermalright Ultra120. That requires the installation of a mounting plate on the backside of the motherboard.

If you're using a stock Intel cooler, you can skip this step; the Intel cooler uses expansion pushpins to lock down the cooler, so no mounting plate is necessary. Just be certain that the pushpins line up properly before you press down.

The Thermalright mounting plate fits snugly; but don't push too hard, as the motherboard itself has a mounting plate for the LGA1366 socket.

Flip the board over, making sure the cooler mounting plate doesn't fall off. Now gently insert the CPU into the socket, confirming that the notches on the side of the CPU circuit board align with the tabs on the socket.

Attach the heat-sink mounting brackets, screwing down gently--don't screw the brackets too tightly. Then spread a thin layer of thermal paste on the surface of the CPU heat spreader to ensure robust thermal contact with the heat sink.

Prior to installing the cooler, install the DDR3 memory modules into the appropriate sockets. I chose my specific set of DDR3 modules partly because they're relatively low profile, and don't have extra-tall heat sinks of their own; otherwise, the Thermalright heat sink wouldn't have fit.

The Ultra120 heat sink attaches with two spring-loaded screws. Make sure the center pin on the screw mound nests into the dimple on the upper side of the heat sink.

This image doesn't show the 120mm cooling fan that attaches to the heat sink; that part just slides on with a simple plastic clip.

Making the Connections

After you've installed the motherboard, CPU, memory, and cooler, it's time to attach all of the connectors. Your motherboard documentation will show you the layout for these, so consult that before proceeding. Here are the basics you'll need to connect.

Finally, install the PCI Express graphics card and make sure to attach the PCIe power connectors to the card.

Okay, now it's time to boot the system, right? Well, not quite.

Review: Things to Check

Always go back and review what you've done before booting up the PC--I always forget something.

  • Is the memory seated properly?
  • Is the CPU cooling fan connected to power?
  • Are the mounting screws screwed in properly?
  • Is the ATX I/O back plate installed?
  • Are the power and reset switch connectors attached?
  • Are the IDE and power LED connectors attached?
  • Is the case-fan power connected?
  • Are the storage data and power cables connected?
  • Are both the main and ATX12V power cables connected?
  • Is the PCI Express power connected to the graphics board?

Now that you've double-checked all the connections, you need to attach the external cabling, namely the power, keyboard, mouse, network, and video cables. Next, you'll power up the system.

Post-Upgrade Follow-Up

Before you attempt to boot into Windows, get into the BIOS setup program by pressing F2 (Intel motherboards) or Del (most other motherboards). You want to check the boot order, particularly if you have more than one hard drive--you need to make sure that the Windows boot drive is the first drive the system sees. Most modern motherboards allow you to specify which SATA drive is the boot drive.

Also check that you have the right storage type specified for your configuration: IDE, AHCI, or RAID. (Note: If you're using a solid-state drive, don't enable AHCI.)

Once you're confident that the correct boot drive is specified, boot up the system.

Assuming you've connected everything properly, you should see the Windows 7 boot screen. You'll then need to wait as Windows enumerates all the new hardware. Since I installed the latest Intel motherboard drivers prior to taking out the old motherboard, this process went smoothly for me.

After all the devices have been enumerated and the drivers updated, you'll need to reboot the PC.

Once you've rebooted a second time, check to see if Windows thinks it needs to be activated. You may get a warning to this effect. You can just bring up the system property sheet (in the System control panel) and look at the bottom. There you'll see an 'activate windows now' query, along with an expiration period. I've encountered grace periods as short as three days in a motherboard upgrade; in other instances, Windows doesn't need reactivation. It seems to be something of a crap shoot, but the majority of the time, you'll need to reactivate the OS.

In my particular case, activating over the Internet worked fine. Bear in mind, however, that you may have to resort to contacting the Microsoft activation hotline via telephone if activation over the Internet is denied. The process takes only a few minutes, and requires entering codes into fields. If the automated system asks you how many computers this copy of Windows is running on, make sure you answer "1".

Cross-Chipset and Cross-CPU Upgrades

If you're moving from AMD to Intel or vice versa, or if the new motherboard uses a chipset from a different manufacturer than the old one, you need to do a little more work.

First, grab your Windows setup disc and your Windows CD key. If you're upgrading a Windows XP installation, boot from the Windows XP CD. Follow the normal instructions for installing Windows XP, but do not reformat or perform a clean install. Instead, follow the prompts for a repair install. What that will do is update the storage driver to one that Windows will recognize when it boots.

This also works with Windows 7, using the 'Repair My System' option. In both cases you'll need to reenter the Windows key.

Windows Vista makes the process more painful: Vista has no repair option, a serious oversight on Microsoft's part. What has sometimes worked is to boot into safe mode, install the new storage drivers (from the motherboard maker's CD or floppy disk), and then proceed with the boot. But if that doesn't work, you may find yourself performing a clean install after all--which is why backing up your system prior to an upgrade is critical.

Final Thoughts

The upgrade path I present in this article is simple and straightforward, but lays down the groundwork you'll need if you have a more-complex setup. I've performed this type of upgrade several times now with Windows 7, and the machines all continue to run trouble-free.

Even if you think you might need to perform a reformat and a clean install, try running your existing Windows installation first. You might be pleasantly surprised at the result.

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